Dave Ward is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. His research focuses on the relationships between perception, agency and understanding, arguing that these three capacities are constitutively and reciprocally interdependent. He is interested in the historical antecedents of such a view of these relationships (in the German Idealist and Phenomenological traditions, for example), the consequences of such a view for contemporary debates in the philosophy of mind, perception and moral psychology, and the relationship between this view and cognitive science past and present.
Placebos are commonly defined as ineffective treatments. They are treatments that lack a known mechanism linking their properties to the properties of the condition on which treatment aims to intervene. Given this, the fact that placebos can have substantial therapeutic effects looks puzzling. The puzzle, we argue, arises from the relationship placebos present between culturally meaningful entities (such as treatments or therapies), our intentional relationship to the environment (such as implicit or explicit beliefs about a treatment’s healing powers) and bodily effects (placebo responses). How can a mere attitude toward a treatment result in appropriate bodily changes? We argue that an ‘enactive’ conception of cognition accommodates and renders intelligible the phenomenon of placebo effects. Enactivism depicts an organism’s adaptive bodily processes, its intentional directedness, and the meaningful properties of its environment as co-emergent aspects of a single dynamic system. In doing so it provides an account of the interrelations between mind, body and world that demystifies placebo effects.
Villalobos M. & Ward D. (2015) Living systems: Autopoiesis, autonomy and enaction. Philosophy & Technology 28(2): 225–239. https://cepa.info/2511
The autopoietic, theory and the enactive approach are two theoretical streams that, in spite of their historical link and conceptual affinities, offer very different views on the nature of living beings. In this paper, we compare these views and evaluate, in an exploratory way, their respective degrees of internal coherence. Focusing the analyses on certain key notions such as autonomy and organizational closure, we argue that while the autopoietic, theory manages to elaborate an internally consistent conception of living beings, the enactive approach presents an internal tension regarding its characterization of living beings as intentional systems directed at the environment.
Context: The majority of contemporary enactivist work is influenced by the philosophical biology of Hans Jonas. Jonas credits all living organisms with experience that involves particular “existential” structures: nascent forms of concern for self-preservation and desire for objects and outcomes that promote well-being. We argue that Jonas’s attitude towards living systems involves a problematic anthropomorphism that threatens to place enactivism at odds with cognitive science, and undermine its legitimate aims to become a new paradigm for scientific investigation and understanding of the mind. Problem: Enactivism needs to address the tension between its Jonasian influences and its aspirations to become a new paradigm for cognitive science. By relying on Jonasian phenomenology, contemporary enactivism obscures alternative ways in which phenomenology can be more smoothly integrated with cognitive science. Method: We outline the historical relationship between enactivism and phenomenology, and explain why anthropomorphism is problematic for a research program that aspires to become a new paradigm for cognitive science. We examine the roots of Jonas’s existential interpretation of biological facts, and describe how and why Jonas himself understood his project as founded on an anthropomorphic assumption that is incompatible with a crucial methodological assumption of scientific enquiry: the prohibition of unexplained natural purposes. We describe the way in which phenomenology can be integrated into Maturana’s autopoietic theory, and use this as an example of how an alternative, non-anthropomorphic science of the biological roots of cognition might proceed. Results: Our analysis reveals a crucial tension between Jonas’s influence on enactivism and enactivism’s paradigmatic aspirations. This suggests the possibility of, and need to investigate, other ways of integrating phenomenology with cognitive science that do not succumb to this tension. Implications: In light of this, enactivists should either eliminate the Jonasian inference from properties of our human experience to properties of the experience of all living organisms, or articulate an alternative conception of scientific enquiry that can tolerate the anthropomorphism this inference entails. The Maturanian view we present in the article’s final section constitutes a possible framework within which enactivist tools and concepts can be used to understand cognition and phenomenology, and that does not involve a problematic anthropomorphism. Constructivist content: Any constructivist approach that aims for integration with current scientific practice must either avoid the type of anthropomorphic inference on which Jonas bases his work, or specify a new conception of scientific enquiry that renders anthropomorphism unproblematic.
The transparency of perceptual experience has been invoked in support of many views about perception. I argue that it supports a form of enactivism – the view that capacities for perceptual experience and for intentional agency are essentially interdependent. I clarify the perceptual phenomenon at issue, and argue that enactivists should expect to find a parallel instance of transparency in our agentive experience, and that the two forms of transparency are constitutively interdependent (Section 1). I then argue that i) we do indeed find such parallels: the way in which an action is directed towards its goal through our bodily movements parallels the way in which an experience is directed towards its object through our perceptual sensation (Section 2), and ii) reflecting on sensorimotor skills shows why the two instances of transparency are constitutively interdependent (Section 3). Section 4 gives reasons for generalizing beyond the cases considered so far by applying the enactive view to Kohler’s landmark studies of perceptual adaptation. The final section clarifies the form of enactivism to which the previous sections point. The view that emerges is one whereby our perceptual and practical skills are interrelated aspects of a single capacity to have one’s mind intentionally directed upon the world. The transparency of experience, on this view, is achieved in virtue of our capacities as agents as much as it is given in virtue of our capacities as perceivers.
Ward D. & Stapleton M. (2012) Es are good: Cognition as enacted, embodied, embedded, affective and extended. In: Paglieri F. (ed.) Consciousness in Interaction: The role of the natural and social context in shaping consciousness. John Benjamins, Amsterdam: 89–104. https://cepa.info/2292
Upshot: In our target article we claimed that, at least since Weber and Varela, enactivism has incorporated a theoretical commitment to one important aspect of Jonas’s philosophical biology, namely its anthropomorphism, which is at odds with the methodological commitments of modern science. In this general reply we want to clarify what we mean by (Jonasian) anthropomorphism, and explain why we think it is incompatible with science. We do this by spelling out what we call the “Jonasian inference,” i.e., the idea that we are entitled, based on our first-person experience of teleology, to take the appearance of teleology in other living beings at face value.
Ward D., Silverman D. & Villalobos M. (2017) Introduction: The varieties of enactivism. Topoi 36(3): 365–375. https://cepa.info/4136
Just over 25 years ago, Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch published The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (TEM). An ambitious synthesis of ideas from phenomenology, cognitive science, evolutionary biology, Buddhist philosophy and psychology, it attempted to articulate a new research programme: an enactive cognitive science, that would bridge the gap between the empirical study of the mind and the disciplined reflection on our lived experience that characterises phenomenological and Buddhist practices. This enactive approach to the study of mind represented a confluence of several streams of thought whose effect on the cognitive scientific landscape was becoming gradually more pronounced. A vision of cognition as active, embodied, and embedded was beginning to crystalise, and TEM consolidated and further strengthened existing trends. In the intervening years, the theoretical currents that flowed into TEM have only grown stronger within cognitive science and philosophy of mind. As a result, the ‘enactivist’ label has gained in currency, as different combinations of TEM’s main conceptual ingredients have been concocted and presented by different researchers. A consequence of this is the apparent existence of a variety of distinct but overlapping ‘enactivisms’, the relations between which are not always clear. This special issue aims to provide a clearer picture of the enactivist theoretical landscape, some of its distinctive landmarks, and the disputed borders between its main provinces. Each of the papers in this issue takes up and pursues a live theoretical issue for enactivist research, while at the same time shedding light on the conceptual geography of enactivism. In this introduction, we frame these contributions by providing a brief sketch of the streams of thought that flowed into TEM and the origins of enactivism, and the main theoretical channels that have emerged from it.